Capax Imperii, Nisi Imperasset: The Epitaph of the Boomers

At last we start a new year. The American voters spoke that they wanted something different; what they got was a Democratically controlled Congress. The left would like for you to believe that this is the greatest thing to happen to this country since Engle vs. Vitale. The rest of us look for analogies in Paris in 1789 and Petrograd in 1917. Back in the days before these revolutions, people in the West received a good classical education with Roman and Greek authors. Their knowledge of Greek and Latin pervaded their use of English, and they could trade quotations from these authors as a form of communication. The impact of classical education is one reason why Americans find nineteenth century prose hard to comprehend; we simply don’t (as a rule) have a high enough calibre education in language to grasp it.

One of those authors was Tacitus, who was one of the harder ones to read. His prose was sharp, biting and terse, and made for many quotable epigrams. (Christianity furnished a rival to him in Tertullian.) One of those concerned the Emperor Galba, who reigned in the "one and long year," 69 A.D., when Nero was murdered and the Empire went through three emperors before ending up with Vespasian, whose son Titus was the one who ploughed Jerusalem under the following year. According to Tacitus, Galba’s reign was short because he was "capax imperii, nisi imperasset"–able to rule unless he actually did so (Histories, 1,17.) Galba was a hard man in times when troops were looking for a payoff from the man they wanted to lead them. So they shortly dumped him for Otho, then Vitellius…

Rome never quite worked out a regular method of succession after ditching the Republic, and the fact that they had a long run of peaceful transitions was a marvel. But when they dumped an Emperor, they did so without regard to the calendar. In the U.S., we have an organised method of elections and terms, so we only give our people an opportunity at the federal level every two years to express their content or discontent. Although in a fast-moving world two years can seem like an eternity, as long as we hear whining about the terms being too short, we can be assured it’s often enough.

Now we have a new Congress. Will they be able to deliver for the American people? Part of the problem is that they’re not up there delivering for us, but for the special interest groups that put them there. But another part of the problem is that we’re basically choosing between two parts of the same generation of people. Ever since the early 1980’s, American politics have been dominated by Baby Boomers at the polls. The full effect was delayed by Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, but ever since the Great Arkie took office in 1993, we have had Boomers in full power. The Boomers like to refer to their parents as "the greatest generation." Their performance in the last quarter century or so has borne that out. The Boomers have three trademarks that make them unsuited to leave anything but a mess as a legacy:

  1. Boomers are absolutists. They only see things their way. How this plays out depends upon what side of the badly split political and social spectrum. One the left, with relativistic morality as the ostensible lodestar, the result is simple: hypocrisy, of the worst kind. On the right, it leads to the blind optimism and simplistic methodologies that have dogged the Bush administration. The most obvious result of this dichotomy is the dilemma we face with the war on Islamic careerism. It’s like Christian comedian Mark Lowry’s description of the old-time Baptists: not always right, but never in doubt. This leads to another characteristic of Boomers: they’re tyrants, but we take that up elsewhere.
  2. Boomers are obsessed with credentials. This is a major reason why we have not had a non-Ivy league educated President since Ronald Reagan. It also explains why, in a country which is supposed to be the trend-setter in upward social mobility, we have bounced the presidency between two families for nearly twenty years now (and that trend doesn’t show a sign of relief either.) Boomers simply cannot bring themselves to select leaders realistically. They are simply too obsessed with the fact that they have more formal education than any American generation before them. The only major exception to this is in business, where the bottom line, widespread deregulation and the advance of technology have insured some degree of real merit.
  3. Boomers are profligate. Their sexual profligacy is legendary, but their financial profligacy in some ways exceeds that, if it’s possible. Boomers came from a generation of savers whose experience was moulded by depression and war. They’ve managed to run through that and then proceed to plunge themselves and their government into a deeper hole. Today everyone’s worried about what will happen to Social Security when the Boomers start retiring in 2010. The answer is simple: they can’t afford to retire in 2010 or for many years thereafter! They’re too deep in the hole!

Much of the problem stems from the slide of the Boomer generation that seems to worm its way into prominence and power: products of the upper reaches of society who were educated in its elite schools. It’s no credit to the rest of the generation that they have allowed this group to predominate, but they have. This was driven home recently when I discovered that I went to prep school with Paul Bremer’s cousin. I remember Paul Bremer’s cousin, along with many of his colleagues. No wonder we’re in trouble in Iraq! Will the Republic survive this generation? My optimism has been fading lately. In a country where the rule of law is an obsession, we have forgotten that both law and country are no better than the people who must administer and abide by those rules. Now we face an enemy that many Boomers are too provincial to understand and too triumphalistic to believe can beat them. May God help the United States as we endure the generation that is fit to rule unless it actually does so.

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